The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has called once again for an end to impunity around the killing of journalists in Mexico after a particularly violent period for the profession. But the different forces behind the aggressions can often contribute to, rather than erode, impunity.
Violence tied to drug trafficking and organized crime is the major danger for reporters in Mexico, according to a new report from the CPJ, which has documented more than 50 cases of journalists or media workers killed or disappeared since 2010.
At least five journalists have been murdered since the start of 2017, including Miroslava Breach Velducea, the Chihuahua correspondent for the national Mexican news outlet La Jornada. The most recent reported killing was of that of Filiberto Álvarez Landeros on April 29.
Mexico’s impunity rating has more than doubled since 2008, according to the CPJ’s tally of cases that victimize journalists. In nearly every case of a journalist murdered in direct retaliation for their work, justice remains elusive and impunity the norm.
The state of Veracruz is where the violence against journalists has been most acute recently. It’s no coincidence that the entity was until recently governed by one of the most audaciously corrupt administrations to come to light, and has been consumed by drug-related violence and disappearances.
Ex-Gov. Javier Duarte — who was recently arrested in Guatemala six months after going on the run from charges related to corruption, organized crime and embezzlement — oversaw an administration between 2010 and 2016 in which attacks on the press were rife and went unpunished. At least six reporters were killed for reasons related to their reporting under his watch, says the CPJ.
“Journalists are caught in the combination of corruption and impunity, brought about by an even deadlier combination: corrupt government officials and organized crime allied against the free press, against the truth exposed by investigative and critical reporting,” Adela Navarro Bello, the director of Zeta Magazine in Tijuana, points out in her foreword to the report.
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Navarro is referring to the dynamic of narco politics, which is a major factor in aggressions against journalists. Local governments colluding with criminal groups have as much interest in shutting up the press as their criminal paymasters and associates.
But there are other dynamics in Mexico that can also lead to problems. Mexican journalists and publications sometimes embrace unethical practices themselves. Maria de los Angeles Velasco of Noticias, Voz y Imagen de Oaxaca, explained in the CPJ report that some reporters accept gifts from politicians to write positive stories about them. Others establish more formal arrangements of monthly payments from politicians in exchange for positive reporting, she said.
The financial support that many newspapers depend on often comes overwhelmingly from the government and it often conditional. Pedro Matías, the Oaxaca correspondent for the Mexico City-based Proceso magazine, told the CPJ that many newspapers, and TV and radio stations in the state are financially dependent on government advertising which can be given or taken away depending “on the tone of the coverage.”
Another financial issue also exposes some reporters and publications to an enforced choice between “plata o plomo,” which loosely translated means a bribe or a bullet. The typical salary for reporters working outside Mexico City is strikingly low; freelancers are paid between US$5 and US$10 for a story, and about US$3 per photo, according to the report. Arguably, taking payments from organized crime or government officials can often be a matter of survival, not a lack of ethics. And Mexican media organizations often fall short in proving training, protection and support to their staff, and even more so for their freelance contributors.
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Repression of the press has a long history in Mexico. The country’s political classes under the Institutional Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Institutional – PRI), which ruled for 71 years, had grown used to having a great deal of control over the press and some of that attitude still remains.
Since the arrival of democracy in Mexico in 2000, the country’s media has become increasingly independent. The rise of internet publishing at around the same time prompted the creation of a plethora of new editorial voices, blogs and outlets. But the political class still largely expects the press to do its bidding for them, in part because they — albeit with a more diverse set of names, if not agendas — continue to pay the bills.
The gifts and formal monthly payments Velasco mentions are known as “chayote” in Mexico, and although such arrangements between outlets today are a lot less common, they still persist. Criminal groups, as well as governments, also control the media this way. Some even publish press releases. That puts reporters and outlets in the crosshairs of rival political and criminal organizations not given good coverage. It can also generate retaliation from those paying out for coverage if what’s published doesn’t meet expectations.
Although there are laws and mechanisms to protect journalists (which the CPJ says do not go far enough), Mexico’s political culture is a major provocateur of hostility towards the media. The co-existence of old attitudes alongside new laws within the country’s justice institutions can be two opposing forces.
“Politicians and public officials feel as though they are the owners of information and that journalists are instruments at their service,” says Garza, who was editor of the newspaper Siglo de Torreón for seven years.
He said that although the “chayote” and other corrupt practices have declined, there is no such thing as freedom of expression.
During a press conference in the city of Torreón in June 2013, for example, a journalist asked a powerful politician, Guillermo Anaya, a question he didn’t like. Anaya, then a federal deputy for the National Action Party (Partido Acción Nacional – PAN) and reportedly a close friend of then-President Felipe Calderon, approached the reporter at the end of the event.
“What you need is to be kidnapped,” Anaya said to the journalist, in an incident relayed by Proceso and other media. He meant that the reporter needed to be taught a lesson, to know when to keep his mouth shut.
The journalist under attack defended himself by saying that those who enter a life of politics should be prepared to answer questions. But that is a concept yet to be embraced by some members of Mexico’s political class, who pose as much of a threat to the media in Mexico as organized crime.
(Map courtesy of CPJ)
Article 19, an international freedom of expression organization with a chapter in Mexico, estimates that government officials are behind at least half of the aggressions against journalists in Mexico. In two of the three case studies of murdered journalists investigated in the most recent CPJ report, local politicians or powerful groups connected to them are suspects.
Victor Badillo, an independent journalist based in Monterrey, Nuevo Leon, told InSight Crime that he recently dropped a story about the trafficking of medicines after he received threats from the commercial company involved. He alleged it and the local government were working together on the scheme, emphasizing the role private companies can also have in manipulating both local officials and the media to get the coverage they want.
The “chayote’ may be on the decline, but the dependence of Mexico’s media on state advertising persists, which poses a problem of independence. As Matías, the Proceso correspondent, pointed out, such money can be withdrawn depending on the tone of coverage. Newspapers don’t want to bite the hand that feeds them, which can create a codependency where the media is subservient to government interests.
That power dynamic can also work the other way, according to Mexican journalists who spoke to InSight Crime, with rare occasions in which reporters abuse their power to threaten to publish negative coverage if their demands aren’t met.
When government and criminal interests are aligned via corruption and collusion, state control via ad revenue becomes more of an issue and an even more formidable force. Narco politics — alliances between mainly local governments and organized crime — has always existed in Mexico but has become increasingly visible thanks to a more independent press. Barely a week goes by without new, credible revelations emerging that connect government officials to criminal groups.
“Drug traffickers have always used propaganda to control the population as much as they can, and to put fear into the population, officials and other traffickers,” Mike Vigil, a retired agent from the Drugs Enforcement Administration (DEA), told InSight Crime. Vigil was based in Mexico for the agency for a total of 13 years, and on its border with the United States for another four years.
“A lot of politicians used the media to portray themselves as incorruptible and to enhance their careers,” he added. “And that continues even today.”
The fragmentation of Mexico’s drug cartels over the last decade, largely a consequence of the so-called “kingpin” strategy, has made competition between rival organizations much more common and violent. Coopting local officials today is fundamental to the strategy of criminal organizations vying for control, and very lucrative to those who cooperate.
“The government should be banned from giving a single peso to newspapers. There should be no government advertising. Newspapers should just publish the most important government alerts for free,” Badillo says.
But Garza says such a change is not the answer and would prompt 80 percent of the newspapers in Mexico to shut down.
“Impunity is a government issue, and the government needs to do its job,” Garza told InSight Crime. “The best way to protect a journalist from a future aggression it to punish a past one.”
(Map courtesy of CPJ)
All too often, however, the official response to aggressions against journalists often capitalizes on the traditional concept of journalists as servants of the state, and as corrupt and abusive themselves. Local government can claim that murdered journalists “andaban mal” — a euphemism for their involvement in something underhanded that led to their demise.
Marcela Turati, a prominent Mexican journalist and the 2017 Knight Latin American Nieman Fellow, warned against accepting the government response to the killing of reporters in recent comments she made on Facebook following the murder of her friend and colleague Breach.
“As the official narrative of the crime emerges, we confront the risk of supporting the perpetual narrative, the one that encourages impunity, the classic tales that the journalist was killed by the narco, or that they were at a party with their killers, or that they were killed by their boyfriend after spending the night together, or that they were on drugs, or that it was a fight between neighbors. It is not a moment for such carelessness,” Turati said on Facebook.
In a democracy, justice is meted out or withheld by the state, be it through inaction or deliberate obfuscation. But Mexico’s democracy is young, and dominated by a political culture that still clings to the past. As a result, although the laws to protect the country’s press exist, those charged with implementing them often struggle to find the political will or means to do so.
Last week, a new government administration in the state of Quintana Roo apologized publicly to Pedro Canché, a journalist who was jailed for 271 days on charges of sabotage. The case against Canché was eventually dismissed by a federal judge, reported the Guardian, and the apology was a rare, small victory for Mexico’s beleaguered media. The previous government administration had refused to apologize to Canché after being ordered to do so by the National Human Rights commission, according to the report.
“Who will ask for public apologies for the 104 journalists killed [since 2006]?” Canché asked following the public apology. “The Mexican state owes them and their family an enormous debt.”